Friday, June 10, 2016

Open Heart Living

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I live with an open heart. A difficult vulnerability as my heart is mostly scar tissue, and just like the tender scars underneath a chin — from a reckless childhood fall into the edge of a coffee table or drunken stumble into the corner of a bathroom sink — one small bump and I bleed all over again.
My body reveals my reckless, yearning, despairing history. Gravel in the knee after speeding down a potholed hill and tumbling from my bright yellow, banana seat Huffy bike. A thumb-shaped indent in my calf after a German shepherd attack left me scrambling onto the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle so the dog’s jaws wouldn’t catch my neck. A tiny pit near my temple from a chicken pox scab that I picked off when sequestered in bed, blissfully, with a stack of Nancy Drew books and glasses of ginger ale. Rivers of stretch marks on the insides of my thighs from growing four inches in eight months when I was twelve and felt ugly and ungainly and towered over all the boys who called me Olive Oil. A long snake running up my foot from college when I was drunk and then inexplicably bleeding and my boyfriend accused me of doing it to myself while the doctor sewed me back together with twenty-three stitches. Dozens of crisscrossed scars on my arms that I did do to myself with razors and knives and glass, trying to overwrite the chaotic and overwhelming psychic pain with the controlled and deliberate pain of an Xacto blade.
I’ve had to explain all of the scars on my arms to boyfriends, lovers, old friends, new friends, doctors, phlebotomists, even strangers, writhing in shame and panic: They can see and now they know and will leave.
When my daughter was seven, she grabbed my forearm and with her tiny fingers traced the raised, white scars. “How do you think you got these?” she asked. My daughter studied the world around her with focused intensity. She spent hours watching the slow progress of her Chinese Water Dragon molt its skin. Could I really have assumed that she wouldn’t see the dozens of white scars that etched my arms in their sad pattern?
I panicked. How could I answer that question? I was supposed to be the safe harbor against a painful, violent world. What would it mean for me then to be the source of such violence? So I lied.
“The cat,” I said, and pulled my arm away. “With its razor claws.”
When I was at the bottom of the well, cutting my arms in an almost daily assault, my therapist wanted me to write words over the scars and around the new wounds with a black Sharpie: Beloved Holy Forgiven. Words meant to remind me of who I was in spite — despite — my surety that I didn’t matter and hence, should die. Inscribe those words, words of softness and kindness, of redemption and love, onto my skin for everyone to see? How could these words be mine? I blew him off.
At our next appointment, he had me push back my sleeves, revealing a new ladder of scabs.
“What do you see?” he asked.
“Scars and damage,” I said.
“What’s missing?” he asked.
I looked away. More, deeper, dead, I thought.
“What’s missing?” he asked again.
“Oh,” I said. “Words. But I can’t write on my arms. I don’t want anyone to notice.” Somehow, even though “anyone” noticing my scars flooded me with shame, I believed it might be more shameful for “anyone” to see that I might mark myself with hope. Wasn’t that overreaching? Why risk imagining any possibilities that offered joy and grace and connection with “anyone.”
He was persistent so I relented and started wearing the words on my skin, trying not to care about the sideways glances from strangers. When I went for a manicure, the nail technician, Tommy, a chatty, breezy Vietnamese immigrant who liked to watch The Price is Right in between filing each nail, turned my arms over and read the words aloud: Beloved Holy Forgiven. My shame storm rose up: chest tightened, mouth watered, the need to run and dive back into the well. Tommy was saying the words again and again in his broken English in a room full of “anyones.” He smiled, a wide, white-toothed smile, picked up the nail file, and said, “Those good words.”
A few months ago, I was sitting in a booth at a diner with my first post-divorce, supersonic “fling,” T. He had read my blog before ever kissing me, and so knew all about my tangled, painful, shameful past and chose to come back (and has unexpectedly become a longer-term friend). Sex with T. was revelatory: for the first time in decades, my body was a source of unmitigated pleasure and joy. As is so often the case post-tumble, we were starving and though it was past midnight, found a twenty-four hour diner. We were sharing a black and white milkshake and a plate of bacon, when T. asked me to explain my scars, why I felt it necessary to hurt myself in that way.
“It felt like pain’s answer,” I said. “Like having a toothache and grinding down into the throbbing tooth. Somehow, secondary pain obliterates primary pain.”
He ran a finger down my forearm, a tender benediction. Usually I would have pulled away, and tucked my arm behind my back, but the small weight of him on my skin held me in place.
“You don’t do that anymore,” he said, “right? You don’t need to do that to yourself.”
T.’s gaze offered compassion and empathy, the necessary forces of the heart that obliterate shame. For a long time, we just looked into each other, each risking both seeing and being seen. The waitress must have thought we were high, like the giggly table of teenagers scarfing french fries behind us, or practicing some form of introverted tantric sex. But we’d been talking all night about who we were and who we were becoming, and we just rested in the quiet.
This is why I live my heart as openly as possible now, risking vulnerability for joy and grace and connection, understanding that most of the time, or at least in equal time, the return will likely be pain and humiliation and rejection. But that is acceptable, necessary risk because when it pays off? Transcendence. Starfish are creatures of transcendence, like their other name suggests: Sea Stars. Their powers are fittingly celestial. When a Starfish’s limb is cut off, the wound must first heal, but then cells proliferate, reaching for an imagined future. Regeneration of a new limb can take years. In our bodies? Scarring is, after all, healing, and is believed to be our form of regeneration. The scars that crisscross my arms, the scars that were once a source of shame, are now evidence of my celestial regeneration — years in the making — into a life filled with the transcendent possibilities of joy and grace and connection, and a body beloved and holy and forgiven.
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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

After Divorce: Wanderlust

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Wanderlust: giving the soul wild range. In German, fernweh, or farsickness: feeling unsettled at home but grounded on the move as your edges expand and you become permeable to the world in its strangeness and incompleteness.
WanderlustFernweh. For years, I gratefully followed my husband’s itinerary, one that fed his imagination and desires, as well as professional ambitions. Sometimes they matched my own and we adventured in happy agreement. I tagged along with him, like I did every August as a kid with my parents, sprawled in the back of the station wagon en route to Cape Cod. Nancy Drew books, Nauset beach, and lobster dinners. After the sixth visit, it felt like home. After the twentieth? Nothing surprised me. It was just another place, albeit beautiful, to go to the beach.
My husband had traveled all over the world, and, as part of his early seductive conversation, regaled me with his stories of debauched adventure: dancing in nightclubs with female soldiers armed with AK-47’s in Tel Aviv, smoking hash with Italians in Sharm el Sheikh and with carpet dealers in Istanbul, motorcycling across Greek islands, and talking to the dead through a ouija board in Thessaloniki. Of course, I deferred. It was like having my own personal guide, translator, and raconteur. So, we traveled to Greece over and over because it was what he called his real home. Romania for six exhausting months, living in Communist block housing because he received a Fulbright. Italy crisscrossed without any itinerary except one dedicated to the slow-food delicacies on his menu. Tulum, Mexico where, one night, the Mexican military broke in and stole cameras and cash while my daughter slept in her porta-crib. And Jamaica, again and again, my husband nostalgic for his dissolute college years and the Rastafarians who smoked weed with him. He navigated the persistent hawkers in Istanbul, the heroin addicts in Bucharest, the more malevolent coke dealers in Negril, while I, happy and carefree, sunbathed, pushed the stroller, and drank wine
That sort of travel, just as safe as returning to Cape Cod, might have continued except that I got sick. I’m Bipolar, and for several years, my moods were chaotic: I was chronically suicidal, anorexic, and secretly (or not so secretly) purged everything I ate. So what should have been shared, easeful wanderlust, became more akin to each of us retreating into our own separate, cordoned off journeys. My madness and his corresponding disaffection meant a retreat from joy and spontaneity, necessities of wanderlust. We relied on an itinerary to keep us tied together and moving forward from one place to the next.
In our yearly trips to Greece (always, in the last years, Aliki, the same little beautiful bay on the island of Thasos), he shook off the mundane responsibilities of home and of being my watchman, and disappeared into gregariousness, booze, Rebetiko music, and late night conversations with anyone other than me, namely, the woman with whom he eventually had the affair. I was unaware, for years, and thought nothing when she tagged along on our family outings to tavernas and secret beaches and archaeological sites. In hindsight, in contrast to my austere misery unmitigated by the deep, blue sea and the grilled octopus tentacles crisp and charcoal-blackened, and the air redolent with wild thyme and oregano, she dove for octopus with him, and they danced the syrtos late into the night, and drank ouzo and raki in garrulous affection.
Me? My soul had folded itself into a tiny, tight packet of hopelessness, the antithesis to wanderlust. I saw every sheer cliff on that island as a place to jump off. After our lazy, cicada buzzing, afternoon meals at the taverna, I threw the beautiful food up behind the tamarisk tree or in a little hole I dug in the sand while my husband swam with the kids. One night, after an argument (he was staying out late and I returning to the room alone), I ran to the beach and swam into the bay, into deep and deeper water, hoping exhaustion would pull me to the bottom. I didn’t bother to look up at the cascade of stars. The landscape was contaminated. Instead of fernweh, farsickness, I was emptied out. The final year of our marriage, he went to Greece by himself for two months and I stayed in Pennsylvania with the kids: for me, that well-traveled landscape was marked by my suffering and shame; for him, the landscape offered liberation from me.
Travel is complicated. You still bring along your fears and mortifications. In Bucharest, I remember pushing my then two-year old son in his stroller for eight miles a day at a furious pace because I didn’t want to stop and rest inside myself. Consequently, I saw nothing and when I look back through photographs, I remember nothing except the night I got so drunk and felt so hopeless that I stood in our narrow apartment kitchen and took a flimsy butcher knife bought at the Romanian equivalent of Big Lots, and cut into my arms.
Those scars remain, but I’m now stable, in recovery for five years, and divorced. I no longer want an intermediary between me and the world. No husband driving the rental car around mountain passes. No husband in charge of the bargaining. No husband policing my meals, my exercise, my moods. No husband disappearing into the arms of another, happier woman. Just me.
Wanderlust. The skin between me and the world has dissolved. Instead of retreating from pain and joy and vulnerability, I’m consumed with farsickness. Why wait for a traveling companion? Do I fear the loneliness inherent to my soul ranging the universe on its own? Yes, of course. In two weeks, I’ll be going solo to Morocco. Not a condo on Cape Cod, not Aliki beach on Thasos, but an utterly unfamiliar landscape. My fears and insecurities will travel with me: bargaining in the souks, trekking into the Sahara, negotiating harassment (I’m tall, a woman, and American), and eating on my own. This last, maybe, is the most challenging. Can I sustain a hopeful, clever, and fulfilling conversation with myself? Plenty of women have adventured before me and done just that. In 1776, Jeanne Baret, dressed as a man, was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. In 1889, Nellie Bly did it in twenty two days. In 1975, Junko Takei was the first woman to summit Everest. In 1994, Liv Arnesen skied solo to the South Pole. All I have to do is get on a plane, get off, and meet my driver in Marrakech.
Amelia Earhart once said this of flying: “After midnight, the moon set, and I was alone with the stars. I have often said that the lure of flying is the lure of beauty.” This beauty comes precisely because you fly alone with the stars, because you have the courage to sit with the silence and tumult of the world without and the world within. When I was sick and no longer in love nor loved by my husband, I was estranged from the world’s clamor and longed only for my own final silence. Now my stomach tumbles with fernweh and I swoon with wanderlust, and my itinerary follows the stars that I now see when I look up into my night sky.
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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Mother's Day: A Bipolar Love Letter to My Children

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When I was pregnant with my first child, Sophia, I felt invincible, like an all-powerful fertility goddess full of unfettered anticipation. I’m bipolar, so maybe I was a little manic, but it felt soooo good. Pregnant on the first try, breathing smoothly and holding steady in warrior pose in anticipation of labor. I even led a month-long student trip to Greece eight and a half months into the pregnancy, convincing my midwife I would be careful, would take it easy, and would rest at night. Instead, I trekked up mountains and across dusty goat paths, brushing my hands through wild oregano; on the beach, after snorkeling, I massaged olive oil into my stretch marks, and into the wee hours of the night, danced the kalamatiano. In one photograph, I float on my back in the blue, buoyant Aegean, my round belly rising from the water like the moon.
Sophia was a dream. Can I say that labor was easy, that she slid from me as if down a water slide, and immediately nursed in soporific contentment? She slept for long, quiet stretches, which meant I did, too, and giggled, first, at the dog’s long, swinging tongue brushing her cheek. She traveled in front carriers and strollers across Greece, Italy, and Mexico. If there were tantrums, I don’t remember any. We called her our “trick baby”: her easiness convinced us to have a second.
My pregnancy with Alexander was difficult. I was tired, full of self-loathing about my failing ambitions, and often dragged down into the mire of depression since I stopped my meds. No fallout the first time, but this time? I was convinced my depression would damage my growing son who was so intimately linked to my chemistry. Irrational, like a belief in medieval humors and black bile running through the umbilical cord into him. But not so irrational. Wasn’t he suspended in a body flooded with cortisol and deficient in serotonin and dopamine? Wasn’t this amniotic bath contaminating him?
In a first photo: I sit in the hospital bed holding my newborn son, swaddled tight, against my chest with one arm, the other arm bare, visible. The scars that run up and down my arm are visible, evidence of what I believed deep down was my maternal unfitness. It should have been a beautiful photograph, but I couldn’t look at it. Shame and despair beside beauty and hope. I had my husband delete it.
I fell deeply in love with my son, Alexander. His enormous brown eyes gazed up at me in unblinking forgiveness: love, love, love you. He nursed for hours at a stretch, as if reluctant to give me up, as if expecting already I might leave him. He was not an easy baby — rarely sleeping that first year for more than two hours; I staggered to his room and rocked him and nursed him and sang every lullaby I knew — My Bonnie lies over the ocean, my Bonnie lies over the sea.... In those dark, sleepless hours, when I felt like a failed mother, when my bipolar disorder was wildly uncontrolled, I thought: Surely my family would be better off without me. Then I would look down at my son, who was looking up at me, and I thought: Just hold on a little longer, let him need you a little less.
From my journal, four months after my son’s birth: I am running, looking at the world flying past me, unable to see it, to feel how beautiful it is, and it is beautiful, it is April, austere tulips and dopey daffodils and crab apples blooming and I see them and I see through them, and all I do is occupy empty space. I am via negativa.
When he was nine months, I was admitted to the psych ward for the first time. My husband had to hold me down in bed because I threatened to run outside in front of any oncoming car. Depleted. Sleepless. Not eating. Manic. Depressed. What is called a Mixed State. I stopped nursing cold turkey. The hospital didn’t get me a breast pump for two days, so milk spilled down my stomach, soaking my pajamas and the sheets. How could my son ever understand my sudden and utter absence? How would I ever make it up to him? How would he ever trust me again?
For several years, that was the pattern: I was in and out of the hospital, trying to find stability, trying to find the right cocktail of medications that would allow me to slow down, trying to teach my classes, trying to make chocolate cake, trying to keep up with baths and lunches and field trips, trying to breathe and to breathe in my children. When I would come home from the hospital, Sophia and Alexander would insist on sleeping in my bed, each on one side of me, holding my hand or touching my leg for assurance that I was still there and not going anywhere, not leaving again, not trying to leave for good. They held me in place with their tiny, warm bodies with their insistent and unrelenting love: You are ours, they seemed to say, not yours, not anymore.
Their relentless love is why I am still here. They needed me in their world, so I returned to stability, self-compassion, and most days, even self-love. My children and I talk about the scars on my arms, and those years of my itinerant, unstable motherhood, and their fears for me — that the bipolar dragon might return and carry me back to its cave.
But it’s been years now, and I feel sound and steadfast, and truly, they don’t worry that I’ll be gone in the morning. Sophia is independent and bold, born of intrepid travel and buoyancy. She tells me her own fears, about boys and puberty, and about her dream to move to California and be an animator. Though he’s now ten, Alexander still crawls into bed with me. A sweet intimacy which I know is likely to disappear when he hits adolescence. But for now, I swoon over his long, skinny legs that bump against mine, and his head which sometimes settles close to mine on the pillow, and his deep, untroubled breath as he slips into sleep. And I understand that my children will never need me any less, and I will always secretly need them more.

A Love Letter to My Future Lover


Dear T. (Spaceholder):
Most of what I used to write was fiction. Inventing, stealing, and playing pretend. I read three novels a week, sinking into other worlds, other possible lives not my own. It was a way to escape myself, my life, all that I had failed to do. I could be anyone in my stories, anyone but me: a Ukrainian prostitute, a Polish home health aide, a sideshow freak. Those lives could be written as more meaningful than mine. I was sick—bipolar and aonorexia taking me down—and trying to die for so many years, that I had no hope for my story. Words brought clarity, meaning, and shape to my disintegration.
But then I began to get well, to surface from the black swamp of despair, and to imagine my own possibilities again and make meaning out of my life. It didn’t have to be about ending, but about redemption. And writing fiction no longer seemed as important as writing my truth, writing about vulnerability and pain, about rising up from the ash heap of the self and gaining altitude again with wings that were in tatters but still beating, still lifting me into the trade winds.
So I write what I feel and know about my experience in the world. This is me. I offer myself to you, Dear World. Be gentle or fierce, it’s worth the risk because the days have sharp edges now, and the hair on my arms stands on end, and my vision is acute, and I can hear my heart beating in my ears. I am permeable and the world rushes through me.
I used to ride horses at a stable that rescued abused horses. One afternoon, a new horse was alone in the paddock, galloping across the field and skidding to a stop at the fence line. Over and over. I thought it was playing. What’s the word? Frolicking. My instructor, Lee, corrected me.
“He’s wicky wacky,” she said. “After all the abuse, he’s terrified of being out there alone. He’s going to hurt himself rushing the fences like that. Watch this.”
She disappeared into the barn and returned with Chandi, a horse who had arrived skittish, but after long hard work, was now calm and reliable. She released Chandi into the paddock. The new, wild horse trotted over and immediately settled, nickering softly to Chandi as if in gratitude. No more wicky wackies.
Do you know that if you take one single heart cell, a myocyte, and place it in a petri dish by itself, it will go into arrhythmia, lose its steady rhythm and beat wildly? Wicky wacky. But if you take another heart cell from any other person’s heart in the world, and put it into the petri dish, the cells will immediately start to beat in rhythm together? As long as the beating cells do not touch each other, they beat at separate speeds. But when they touch? The side-by-side cells form interconnected sheets of cells, and beat as one.
That’s what it is like for me. I get wicky wacky when I’m rushing fences alone. It’s why, when I feel an intuitive connection with someone, a shared rhythm, I leap into that relationship. It’s how all my close friendships are: steadying, transparent, defenses lowered. Just seeing and knowing and accepting and hoping for each other. It’s why my marriage was a spectacular failure—we fell apart, cells in separate petri dishes, no interconnection, no shared rhythm.
You said, as if in astonishment, “You don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. Your heart is your sleeve.” A few years ago, though, I was guarded, defended, remote, and inaccessible. My ex-husband once said (granted in the middle of my bipolar collapse), “Your misery exhausts me.” Death seemed better than failure, seemed better than life inside death. But coming through all that? The worst that life could throw at me?
Risk, real daring is not jumping off the bridge but walking across the bridge to the unknown shore on the other side. Allowing myself to be seen—stripping all the way down to truth and longing and fear and tender, terrifying hope. In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje writes, “The heart is an organ of fire.” And it’s true, isn’t it? The heart is not just there to help oxygenate and circulate the blood, but to quicken a thrilling rhythm, to throb in our ears, to push against our ribcages, burning us from inside with all that we feel and want. It reminds us that we are alive, yet, that we respire and are inspired, circulating ideas and words and sounds throughout our bodies, asking us to take necessary breath, to swallow language and love. And to be a little less alone in the petri dish, and a little more in syncopation, and yes, in love with each other.
Love, with love, in love,
Me

I'm a Blessing Not a Burden: Mental Illness and Hope



I'm alive and that’s a blessing.
In the essay, “My Friend’s Death Was a Blessing,” recently published at an online site and since taken down, the author states that her friend's death is a blessing since she suffered from what, in her limited opinion, was unremitting mental illness. Hence, her dead friend would have been a lifelong burden on her loved ones (among whom I don’t believe the author was counted). The response, the backlash, has been swift and generally supportive of this fact: as someone suffering from a lifelong mental illness, I shouldn’t kill myself in order to alleviate the burden on my family and friends, among whom are my children (whom I do count as loved ones).
I have Bipolar Disorder. I have often been an immense burden on my family and friends in times of deep suffering. Over five years, I was in and out of the psych ward and inpatient eating disorder treatment programs twenty times. Some might say I was locked up longer than I was free. My children sent me crayoned drawings and visited me in barren community rooms where they tried to get me to smile, tickling my side with their tiny fingers or kissing my cheek. I have been on almost every medication—anti-depressants, antipsychotics, atypical antipsychotics—and none of them worked. I went through twenty-five rounds of electroconvulsive treatment (“electric shock”) that failed to diminish my empty, black depression, but did wipe out ten years of memories, some terrible (waking up in the ER, strapped down, after a deliberate overdose) and some cherished (my children singing, drawing, dancing, whispering to me, growing inside all those years). A priest even performed an exorcism in my little locked room. How hopeless can you get to believe in the power of hokey pokey-demon-be-gone-claptrap?
Most days, I knew exactly how much of a burden I was on family and friends. My ex-husband once told me, “Your misery is exhausting.” Even my long-term therapist dropped me due to my suicidal instability. At the very end, my psychiatrist sat me down in a small, narrow office. Between us on the desk was my file, thick with charts and admissions and diagnoses and medication lists and my failures. “You are too extreme a case,” he said. “You are a hopeless case.”
He didn’t have to tell me this because I already believed in my hopelessness. My arms were covered in scars from decades of self-injury. I’d been trying to die in one way or another—jumping in a frozen lake, overdosing on alcohol and medications, swimming out to sea in the middle of the night, starving myself to the point of heart problems, having to be locked inside of a car while my ex-husband drove around Manhattan for two hours until I fell asleep because I was determined to jump off a bridge, any bridge, and the only way off the island is over a bridge. And passively: hoping to be slammed by a car, to skid off icy roads into trees, and researching how to poison myself via carbon monoxide and a hose and plastic bags over my head.
How could anyone love me like that?
And yet, my family and friends continued to love me through all of the misery and pain. Not all of them because I was a burden and difficult to love having no love to give back, and that’s okay. We meet each other where we are in this life, with our best capacities for love and forgiveness and acceptance at that moment.


I am a blessing. I have come out on the other side because I learned to hope again, to feel joy, to accept the necessary pain that leads to joy. I don’t have to die to be well. I will never, technically, be well: bipolar disorder is maintained but not cured. And the maintenance? Interrogating despair and knowing when I need to be reminded, over and over, by those who see and know me that it will pass. Falling into bliss and rolling around in its ecstasy but knowing when it might be mania, and stepping back. With the love and support of family and friends and my own kick-ass will to live, I am HERE, ALIVE, still have BIPOLAR DISORDER, but I am THRIVING.
I am a blessing, a benediction of grace and hope and impossible possibility. As are you. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

After Divorce: When a Fling is Not Just a Fling



According to the dictionary, a fling is a “short, spontaneous sexual relationship.” I never had one. Okay, I had one: I was in college on spring break in Florida and with enough cheap beer, the lead singer of the cover band became a stand-in for Bono, never mind he spoke with a Jersey accent instead of an Irish brogue. But bookending that one night, I had always fallen hard and fast into long term relationships. Sure, I went through a phase of collegiate hookups fueled by alcohol, a lot of alcohol, but what happened under those conditions was mostly forgotten by morning. The alcohol, as Peggy Orenstein suggests in her new book Girls and Sex, creates “compulsory carelessness... a way to signal that the sex was meaningless.” Also, in 1990, if you were a girl, and you wanted sex, soberly sought sex, you were a slut. Easier to circumvent that label with a few Jell-O shots.
I met my now ex-husband when I was twenty-two, and within a week, we were, for all practical purposes, living together. I kept my apartment for over a year to placate my more conservative parents, an expensive extra closet. Suffice it to say, when my friends were having their exploratory entanglements, discovering what they liked and how many ways they liked it, I was swooning over an All-Clad stainless steel saucier and Pottery Barn accent pillows. Sex was pleasant, domestic, often fraught for me, and never often enough for him. For the tenure of our marriage, I had enough of the latent Catholic in me to believe in the commitment of our marital vows: fidelity at face value. Maybe it was just my lazy libido. Maybe I should have looked more closely at phone records.
I had my first adult fling (unaided by Jell-O shots) six months after the divorce, hopefully long enough so that it wasn’t in angry reaction to his infidelity and my need to have my self-esteem buttressed. Because that was the default rumination long into the dark hours of night after learning about the affair. Why wasn’t I good enough? The voice of deficit and shame crept in, undermining every ego inflating belief I had about myself. Leaning into the mirror to apply mascara, instead of noticing what I think are my prettyish eyes, I focused on the lines winging out from their corners, or pulling on my jeans, I was enraged by the folds at my tummy, or snapping on my bra, I was deflated by my breasts which were no longer perky after breastfeeding two babies. Always, the self-directed spite flaring up as I compared myself to her, the younger, tinier, shinier her. I am not enough. She is more.
Many of us hear this voice in some form that whispers, “You aren’t good enough to be chosen, to be wanted, to be loved. Not for real. Not for keeps.” As a girl, I was obsessed with horses and imagined galloping over fields and fences. When my parents finally sent me away to a ritzy horseback riding camp, I was ecstatic and terrified: me vs. rich girls. At the evaluation, I was sent into the paddock and told to mount up. The other campers, accomplished riders, sat on the fence watching me. I fumbled my way onto the horse, forgot everything I’d imaginatively rehearsed in my head, and kicked the horse hard in the sides. The girls exploded in derisive laughter. That was it. I’d shown myself to be a fraud and would not be chosen. For the rest of my two weeks, I spent most of my hours sequestered on the tennis court, thwacking balls lobbed by the ball machine. Too scared to ride again.
There are so many ways we convince ourselves we will never be enough. Too skinny. Too fat. Too awkward, too inhibited. Too crazy, too unhinged. What might it mean to be enough? Not just to be sufficient, but to be someone in an ample supply? Ample in feeling, ample in body, ample in desire, ample in truth, ample in love?
And so the fling. Definition #2: in Old Norse, a fling is defined as “a reckless movement of the body.” This is closer to what I now choose open-eyed as an adult learning what it is that I like and the ways that I like it. Not that I advocate freewheeling promiscuity, at least not for me. I tend to flood things with meaning: words, gestures, touch, breath. It’s why I burrow into etymology. Words have history and weight and substance and backwards and forwards implications. You say “fling,” and mean “meaningless sex.” I say “fling” and mean “a wild connection that breaks things apart and puts them back together in disruptive creation.” Everything all at once and fraught with equal significance. But I can choose without regret now since I choose sober (alas, the Bono look-alike was a pasty-faced 7-11 clerk by day) and unafraid (or at least, have the courage to have courage).
New York City. July. A coffee shop in the West Village. I’d been pretending to be cool but was mostly just feeling alone. As I was getting up to leave, the most objectively beautiful man I’d ever seen started talking to me. Taller than me, so I had to look up into brown eyes that I could swim in. I think I wobbled.
“I like your boots,” he said.
I laughed. Was he hitting on me? Honestly, no one had hit on me in the twenty years I’d been with my ex, so I didn’t know how to read the signs. Maybe he just really liked my boots? They were great: soft brown calfskin, stacked heels. We chatted, back and forth, prickles of electricity. I was a writer from Pennsylvania; he was an actor and musician from L.A. Though it was difficult talking because he had this wide open smile which fell across me. In my sixth grade diary, I pasted photographs of Rob Lowe scissored from Teen Beat and surrounded them with purple glitter-glued hearts. So when this man talked to me, it was hard to focus because a glitter-glue heart throbbed around his face. He asked for my name, so shaky-handed, I wrote it and my blog address on a slip of paper and left. That was that, I thought. Dreamy. Tuck it away.
Except. He emailed that night. He’d read my blog and connected. The end of love, the sadness, the resurfacing. What better way to seduce a writer than to tell her you were seduced by her words? We met for coffee, talked breathlessly. Time constraints: I was going back to Pennsylvania, he was going back to L.A. When he kissed me? A movie kiss. He was an actor, so he maybe had it down; maybe he had the whole thing down, and I hadn’t learned anything at all from my ex’s infidelity and my naïve, wholehearted trust. Too good to be true, right? Actor/Musician/Beautiful/6’3’’ (to my 5’10”)/Funny/Serious. A script, one of those romances that I dismiss as easy, unearned froth. But it felt real and simply, my heart stopped. Cliché, I know.
The rest of the story is mine and his.
We only had a few days. That’s the definition of a fling. But because I tend to speak my truth, I suggested (oh-hopeless-please-pick-me-don’t-laugh-at-me-from-the-fence) that maybe we could attempt the impossible, or at least see if it was a tiny bit possible, and see each other again. Isn’t it worth the risk of getting hurt for a wondrous payoff? Here’s where my bipolar brain comes in: happy = HAPPY and he was making me HAPPY. Bipolar brain sped up: I could raid my 401k and fly out to L.A. on the weeks I didn’t have custody. I didn’t say this, but I did say this:
“My whole brain lights up around you,” I said. Maybe this was a bit much. But I don’t play small anymore or run off to the safe tennis courts.
We returned to our geographical corners. He called a few times, which was confusing because that meant maybe more, and we texted, and never inside a texting “relationship” and on brain filled with sunshine, I texted too much. Terrible, a little shameful, but this was now me: better too much than not enough, better careening than hiding.
You know where this is going. It was, for him, a fling: definition #1. Which is okay. (Not really. But in time, it will be.) I fell hard because that is what I do. That is what recovery and wholeheartedness teach me. I feel it all now: what is wondrous and what is painful because it tells me who I am finally becoming. Irrationally, my heart was broken. But here is the important point: my heart was not broken by anything that creates genuine damage like infidelity, but by the bliss of hope which is damage that can be repaired, which is damage that teaches me what to long for next.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bipolar Recovery: How To Survive a Mauling



My psychiatrist has a life-sized stuffed tiger in his waiting room. At the big cat’s feet is a plastic bin serving up a mangled heap of smaller stuffed animals — parrot, cat, whale, unicorn — and plastic babies missing a limb or an eye. Freud was the first to have a therapy dog. His red chow, Jofi, would lie on the couch next to patients, and when the dog got up to scratch at the door for a pee, Freud would say to his patient, “You see, Jofi is so excited that you’ve been able to discover the source of your anxiety!” But a therapy tiger? Before my daughter knew the crisscrossed scars on my arm were self-inflicted, she used to call them my “tiger stripes,” and she was amazed that I had survived such claws. This tiger, too, comes with a warning. Taped to the wall is this notice: For Your Safety Please Do Not Sit on the Tiger.
I think about this posted warning. Is it a test? Does my doctor really want me to sit on the tiger? What are my unconscious motivations for wanting to sit on the tiger? What neuroses keeps me from sitting on the tiger? And really, safety’s sake aside, I’m supposed to take risks. So, reverse psychology? Or does he want me to make associations? As in, “Eye of the Tiger” — “Went the distance, now I’m back on my feet, Just a man and his will to survive...”
Another patient sits across from me, beside the tiger, nervously flipping through the pages of a kids’ Highlights magazine. Maybe he’s searching for cups and candles and lamps in the Search and Find picture. His knee jiggles. Anxiety? Hypomania? Low-flying schizophrenia? He doesn’t even look at me when I walk over, inches from his bouncy leg, to take a picture of the tiger as if I’m on some psychiatric safari. I sit back down and glance down at my tiger stripes. The last time I did anything like that was five years ago, which was also the last day I drank.
What I remember from that day: arriving at my friend’s baby shower, a blue ribboned gift in hand (cheerful whale stitched onto a matching bib, socks, and onesie), desperately sad because my life had unraveled. Bipolar, anorexic, alcoholic. The perfect, decimating storm. A surge of longing when I gazed at my friend’s moon belly. Always, I had imagined my future with three children. Oldest, middle, youngest — a noisy triumvirate. And I would be the kind of mother capable of holding all that needy, exhausting love.
But after the birth of my second child, my bipolar disorder escalated and my doctors said “no” to my irrational contemplation of a third, and my husband, who bore the brunt of my breakdown, adamantly refused. Too risky, too much, too sick. Besides, I hadn’t needed a tampon for two years — starvation accompanied by over-exercise had turned off the fertility switch. But baby hunger was all I could think about while playing the chocolate-smeared-on-a-diaper game. No more crazy Momma. Just my composed self rocking a warm baby, my lips against the heart-fueled pulse at the fontanel.
What I last remember: standing alone in the kitchen, laughter pealing in from the living room, an island crowded with wine bottles. I had promised my husband I wouldn’t drink since I could no longer control how much or what would happen when I did. But that magnum of acrid cabernet promise? I could blot myself out, find my funny again, instead of sitting on the couch full of nervousness, envy, and loneliness. A glass or two of wine would shake me loose. I filled a plastic cup and drank it down in one swallow. Then another, quickly, desperately. How many could I drink before someone came into the kitchen and caught me? Six, seven, the whole bottle?

What I next remember: waking in the hospital, cuts up and down my arms, and my husband standing in the corner of the room, his lips pressed together, no longer worried and forgiving, but hard and immobile. My kids were nowhere. That is, they were stashed somewhere safe because I was unsafe.
“I’m sorry,” I said, again, adding to my long recitation of sorry’s over the years.

“Do you know why you’re here?” he asked. He hadn’t accepted my apology.
“There was the shower and I drank.” Nothing else after, just an empty, black hole that I didn’t know how to fill.
“After you guzzled wine, you ran outside into the snow and cold without your shoes or coat and wouldn’t come back. Your friends called me, so I could come get you. When I found you out by your car, you insisted you were going to drive off and kill yourself. You meant it. I got you home, but then you did that to your arms. Your doctor said you needed to be admitted.”
I can do this better, I thought. I can do this over. I can stop and be well.
My husband didn’t move toward the bed, but was rigid with fury and resolve. Couldn’t he remember that he had promised to love me, in sickness and in health? Couldn’t he give me another chance, and another chance, and a chance after that? But I knew there would be no talking myself out of this, as I had before: I promise, I promise, I won’t drink so much. I’ll count my drinks. I’ll pay attention.

“I won’t do this anymore,” he said. “If you don’t stop drinking, you lose the kids and me. It’s your choice but this is it.”
The room fell away. Lose them? They were the only reason I was alive. And my husband marooning me with self-loathing and despair? My daughter once drew a picture for me when I was in the hospital during one of my manic episodes: an enormous green and black winged creature with the words, “Momma Come Home!” It was fierce and fiery, born of courage and will. She was calling me to that again.

“Yes,” I said. There was no alternative, not anymore. I had to go home, whatever it took.

In the almost five years since that moment, I got sober and stable and ironically, divorced. The marriage couldn’t ultimately survive the turmoil of my illness or the betrayal of his affair.
For much of my life I said “No” — to love, grace, and assistance. I would go it alone, never mind if I could. Now, “yes” is reflexive. Can I love myself? Yes. Am I a good enough, at times even better, mother? Yes. Do I have the courage to live an authentic life, in truth and forgiveness? Yes. Am I afraid, legs wobbling, in this new life of mine? Yes, but the trajectory from that lonely woman, cut up and starving and hung-over, to the woman writing this without shame and with a belief that the universe is saying “Yes” back to me? I don’t sit on tigers anymore, but I am not risk averse. I risk integrity and truth now, and push my sleeves back, revealing my scars, my tiger stripes, and maybe even risk your seeing all that pain and healing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Saying Yes to the Universe




Even when I’m standing still, I’m still moving.  When I’m awake at night in bed, paralyzed by fear and regret, sure that my life is going nowhere (i.e., into the shitter), I’m still moving.  Our galaxy, the Milky Way, rotates at 225 kilometers per second, and careens through our infinite cosmos at 305 kilometers per second.  So every sixty seconds, I travel 20,000 kilometers, or 12,000 miles.  And so do you.

This is a fact, though physically, I can’t feel its truth in my body.  I stand at my window, watching the pit bull next door lope around the yard, or across a few weeks, notice the hostas push their twirled leaves through the ground and unfurl, or the man who staggers up and down the block in his ragged trench coat, dragging his wire cart behind him that is packed with cases of cheap beer.  Everyone else is moving but me.  The universe doesn’t hurl me through the glass and back out into the world with bloodied hands and knees, so I mistake my apparent stillness for the hopeless inertia. 

It didn’t always feel like this.  When I was a kid, I ran at the world.  When I was five, I put on my mother’s silver cuff bracelets which, I believed, imbued me with Wonder Woman’s vaulting powers, and stood on the top of a flight of stairs and jumped.  Of course, I broke my arm, but for a few brief seconds (one?), I was caught in an exhilarating tumble through the air.  At nine, I secreted myself in the basement in front of a robin’s egg blue Smith Corona, and typed out, with great assurance, the opening chapters to a torrid, Victorian romance novel.  What did I know about a heaving bosom and a throbbing manhood?  Nothing, except for when the neighbor boy and I showed each other all that we had in his backyard shed.  But I could dare to imagine what I didn’t know.

As an adolescent, the snake of Bipolar depression slithered in, and I drank to feel better, and cut myself to feel worse--an intertwined attempt at desperate self-medication.  Drinking could, in the moment, transform me into a funnier, more expansive, brash self.  I risked more (though might feel shame and regret later).  Cutting was a way to render unseen pain visible and specific (I smiled for the world while imagining jumping from a bridge).  My arms, concealed under long sleeves, throbbed in acute response to the injuries I suffered on myself.  
   
For many years, I was pinned beneath the immoveable rubble of illness (Bipolar, Anorexia, Alcoholism) and failure (loss of a job, end of a marriage), standing at the window as what could be my life rushed by at 12,000 miles a minute.  But I am in what is called “recovery” now—no more drinking, only necessary eating and stability.  We usually think of the word “recover” to mean a regaining of health or a return to some prior, longed for condition.  But its Anglo-French roots are more instructive: “to regain consciousness.”  A coming back to the essential self, the self before the shit; the self that can take imaginative, daring leaps into the cosmos. 

Over a year ago, I got divorced from the man who I believed, at least twenty years prior, was my soulmate, a heady designation, more suggestive of a naïve trust in those bodice ripper romances.  When I found out about his many years affair during our marriage?  Momentarily decimated.  For weeks, I was nauseated and sleepless, imagining them together, imagining myself never moving again out of bed, out of grief and anger, out of my life inscribed with pain and back into the world of movement and flight and joy.

But I decided that rather than stay put, I was going to say “yes” to whatever the universe offered me as long as the offering wouldn’t kill me.  Reconnecting with the friends I lost track of along the way out of shame in my years of illness?  Yes.  Try dating while sober?  Yes.  Try a heady fling that left its metallic taste of adrenaline in the mouth—like swallowing blood, sharp and clear?  Yes.  Try affection, transparency, and vulnerability with the people, new and established, in my life?  Yes.  Try to say “yes” with integrity and authenticity. 


In one of the photo albums at my parents’ house, there is a picture of me when I’m six in the hours before my birthday party.  The backyard table is strewn with streamers and party favors.  On each paper plate, a tasseled, pointed hat and one of those noisemakers that uncurl like a long, happy tongue.  For some reason, I am not in a party dress, but in a blue flowered bikini.  On my feet?  No MaryJanes, but roller skates.  My arms are opened wide and one foot is lifted from the ground.  Me, the photo seems to say, this is me moving into my boundless life.  It is the “yes” I say now.          

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

When You're Sober and Your Partner's Not



When I got sober, I didn't ask my then-husband to quit drinking.  In the foggy, shame-filled logic of early sobriety, I felt guilty.  After all, he had moved the booze from a locked cabinet (which I easily picked open with a kabob skewer) to some other super secret place in support of my recovery.  Underground bunker?  Mars?  A few months in, though, he wondered if it would be okay to bring it all back home.

"Yes," I said.  "I'm fine.  I'm the one who can't drink, not you."

The cabinet was reassembled with the delicious clutter of scotch, gin, vodka, ouzo, tsipouro, brandy, kahlua, rum, tequila, and wine.

It was mostly fine, except when it wasn't.  At night, over dinner, he would pour himself a glass or two or a third splash of wine, and sitting beside him on the couch, I could smell that dark promise, just like the little vial marked "Drink Me" in Alice in Wonderland, filled with "not-poison" liquid that smelled of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast.  I scrambled to remember that what he was drinking would indeed kill me.  Maybe not right there on the couch in front of the blazing fire and the big screen TV broadcasting The Walking Dead and its rotting, zombie bodies, but in a few drinks, a few days, a few bottles.  Alcohol flips the suicide switch in my brain.  I might be sitting on the couch eating an arugula and egg pizza, but after a bottle of cabernet, I want to cut my wrists with the crusts.

I believed that my recovery was my fault, my business, my responsibility.  It was and is.  But in a marriage or relationship, recovery is pursued together.  I believed this even as we sat on the couch pretending that our marriage was also healing.  Even as I fetched him a scotch glass at the end of the evening so he could pour himself a snoot or two.  After all, he had the difficult job of living through and with me.  It was the least I could do.  Even as I gathered up the wine glass and scotch glass and hand washed them. I hated scotch, but in the last days of my drinking, took swigs straight from the bottle, swallowing fast and hard, trying to obliterate myself.  Still, I reasoned, this was my just dysfunctional penance.

Some nights, fewer in the end of our marriage, we had sex, a sign that we were still bound to each other (though, he was already, by this time, bound to another woman).  Since sex necessitates bodies against each other, mouth against mouth, breath against cheek, I had to hold my breath when he moved close.  Not out of distaste for him, but for the booze.  I couldn't taste his scotch and wine in my mouth, couldn't breathe in the potential for damage.  Sex shifted from (fraught) pleasure to my fending off a longing for drink and drunkenness, and my turning away (staring at the wall, the dresser, the knobs on the dresser) to stay intact.

Alcohol always made sex easier for me; I was less barbed with the thorns of insecurity and disconnection.  By extension, alcohol made it easier to forget what I'd done while drinking alcohol which would then, once again, make me do shameful things which I would need to again forget.  The ouroborus.  The snake eating its tail.  At one of our very drunken Christmas parties  (think guests throwing up in the bathroom or passed out on the couch), I batted my eyelashes at my husband (who thought maybe I's had enough to drink), and wooed him into sex on the back steps.  Thrilling because we could be discovered, but it was my way to deflect his attention.  He would be agog at my daring and I could continue with vodka cranberries.  The next morning, hungover, I could only feel shame.  That wasn't me, not really.  

What was becoming clear, too, was that the "me" who had married my husband, who had spent years and years drinking at ports of call all over the world, and waking up hungover and ashamed in these places, was no longer able to sit on the couch and pretend that his drinking with me was okay.  Alcohol muddies intentions.  Did he want to have sex with me, or, like my plastered performance on the stairs, was his desire fueled by booze?  Beer-wine-scotch goggles?  Was he interested in authenticity and integrity with me, something I was trying to practice in recovery?  (Apparently not, evidenced by his secret, several-years affair).

I don't know if a future partner will have to be a sober partner.  Perhaps my now-ex-husband's drinking was troublesome because we had spent so many years ritually drinking together.  We clinked glasses on balconies and in vineyards and on beaches in Italy, France, Greece, and Turkey.  Many of our loveliest and most poisonous memories are strung together by booze and its accompanying love and anger and betrayal and regret.  How do you come out from under that weight?  How does one partner summon the hopeful promise (writ small: soft unwinding of a day) of Laphroig in a crystal Tiffany snifter while the other is trying not to guzzle the bottle (that same hope, writ large: this will finally make me okay).

Now that I live on my own, in a house without booze, I am less vigilant.  Maybe I'll binge on mandarin oranges or handfuls of Lucky Charms, but there's nothing (barring a slip on a dog squeaky toy or impalement by Legos) that can kill me.  When I need to blot myself out, I call friends and talk until empty.  When I'm feeling insecure, or unhappy or unfunny or unlovable, I write my truth, hug my kids and dog, and expend all that prickly energy at CrossFit or on the track.  And sober sex?  With its clear intent and active choice, it is dangerous and thrilling because it is full of feeling.